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Arab Views

September 6, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, a majority of the Arab League’s countries voted to condemn Iraq, and ultimately several of its leading states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, sent troops as part of the U.S. led military coalition against Saddam.

But when Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo this week to consider the latest U.S. Iraqi showdown, they took a very different tack. Yesterday, they issued a unanimous statement flatly rejecting U.S. Efforts to topple Saddam Hussein, saying threats to the Iraqi regime were threats to the entire Arab world. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said an attack against the Iraqi leader would “open the gates of hell” in the Middle East.

AMR MOUSSA: We cannot be part, we cannot cooperate, we cannot accept the attack or the threats against any Arab country, including in particular the threats addressed to Iraq, to address a strike, a military strike against Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Iraq’s foreign minister applauded what he described as the Arab states’ “total rejection of all intentions of evil and war by the United States administration.” The league’s statement did not mention the possible return of United Nations weapons inspectors, who left Iraq in 1998.

But several Arab governments, including Egypt, have urged Iraq to permit their return. The Arabs’ opposition has practical consequences. Saudi Arabia, which let the U.S. led coalition launch attacks from its soil in 1991, has put its territory off limits this time.

To analyze the Arab League’s action and the views in the Arab world of this latest U.S.-Iraqi showdown, we turn to Fouad Ajami, the director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is “The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey.” And Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper, “As-Safir.”

MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, gentlemen, Hisham Melhem, beginning with you, explain this unanimous support for Iraq, at least in terms of the showdown with the U.S. so different from ’90 and ’91.

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. In the early 90′s you had a split in the Arab world. Today there is almost unanimity against an attack on Iraq. Most Arab governments and governments who believe that Saddam Hussein and his regime represent a potential threat believe also that good old classic containment has really worked so far very well and they don’t see him as representing a clear and present danger.

Also they are very aware of the feelings of resentment and anger among their own people against United States because of the American support — unqualified support for Israeli actions against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Also, they believe that an American attack, especially without the sanctioning of the United Nations and absence of a legal authority or legal cover represent a major precedent. They believe that such an attack against a regime to change it would represent a political earthquake. They believe that the reverberations from that earthquake will dominate the region for a long time to come and also the attack, if and when it takes place, takes place at a time when the United States has a strained relationship with some of its key Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

MARGARET WARNER: Fouad Ajami, how do you see it?

FOUAD AJAMI: Margaret, I agree with some of what Hisham has said. I mean, basically this will not be “Desert Storm” it is a radically altered landscape about 11 years or so ago the Arab states were menaced. This time around we are the ones that are menaced.

And in fact what we are doing is we’re taking the logic of September 11 and the rules of September 11, 2001, and we’re saying that the containment of Saddam Hussein that worked pretty much from 1991 when the guns fell silent until today no longer obtain after September 11, 2001.

Last time around we were really a fire brigade. We had come to put out the fire that Saddam had started in his world. This time we’re coming in and we’re saying basically, folks, you here are sleeping with the enemy. You have gotten used to this bandit Saddam Hussein and that we are not going to accept this.

As far as some of the rhetoric from the League of Arab states, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, the man is basically a demagogue. We’re not going to open the gates of hell and there are going to be all kinds of discrepancies between the public posture of some of the Arab states, which will be disapproving of a strike against Iraq, and some very, very quiet and essential cooperation when the time comes and when we draw the sword.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ajami, where would you put the Arab street here? You heard Hisham Melhem mention that. Before the Gulf War, we heard a lot of talk from Arab experts about the Arab street would rise up, and they didn’t. Do these Arab leaders, however, have more to fear this time?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, Margaret, I think Saddam would have won a free election, if you will, if there were such a thing as a free election in the Arab world, even during Desert Storm. We are not loved in that Arab world. America is not loved in that Arab world. We are not going– we are going into a hostile landscape. There is no doubt culturally and politically, it’s a very difficult landscape.

But I think the argument about Saddam doesn’t really, for us, for America, for the decision to go to war, it has to do with our needs, with our prerogatives, with our security requirements. But no one is going to welcome us with open arms. There will be no dancing in the streets, hailing the coming of the Americans. It’s our fate, it’s the fate of a great power to stand sentry in that kind of a world.

MARGARET WARNER: Hisham Melhem, what is your view about the Arab population and whether these regimes do have more to fear this time?

HISHAM MELHEM: It is true that most Arab regimes are not democratically elected – that many of them are autocratic and some of them are downright dictatorial. That doesn’t mean that they are not aware or they are not attuned to what takes place within their own societies.

Some of these regimes are very smart in staying in terms of remaining in power and keeping a keen eye on the sentiments of their own people.

So there would be an Arab reaction; there would be demonstrations in the streets; there may be some acts of violence and some regimes, such as the regime in Jordan, for instance, would be under tremendous pressure from their own people and that’s why have you, when they talk about the Arab street, some of them do exaggerate its impact, I agree with you, but many of them are genuinely concerned.

Now I don’t want to sound like a Cassandra and tell you that there will be gloom and doom and upheavals and regimes will fall. People exaggerate the impact of the Arab state on the Arab side just as they do ignore it too much on the American side.

MARGARET WARNER: But when Amr Moussa mentioned the Arab Street and he talked about the fires and the region…

HISHAM MELHEM: The gates of hell.

MARGARET WARNER: The gates of hell… excuse me…

HISHAM MELHEM: Maybe he is quoting Dante, I don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: The gates of hell — he put it in the context of the Palestinian situation. Would you say that is that sort of a more…

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: a stronger factor than maybe it was in ’90-’91

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: as to Arab public opinion?

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. You put your finger on it. People focus on Iraq and the gulf in absence of what is taking place in the Arab East in the Israeli-Palestinian theater, in that bloody encounter continuing between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And that’s why the mood is sour in the Arab region for the last two years because of what’s taken place in the West Bank and Gaza, the killings, the death of civilians, the assassinations, policy of Ariel Sharon. And now what the Arabs see and read in the paper and listen to their commentators and pundits, people are telling them those who are leading the charge in the United States, the new conservatives, happen to be pro Israelis and they are in collusion with the Israelis who are urging Ariel Sharon on one hand, and Ehud Barak, urging the American Administration to attack Iraq.

So they see this and they would wonder, are these people really interested in democracy in Iraq, are really these people interested in building a viable civil society in Iraq or they are willing, or they are bent on redrawing the political map of the region? And that’s why the United States has a big problem with the Arab Street, not only because of Iraq but because of what is taking place in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.

MARGARET WARNER: Fouad Ajami, how do you think the Palestinian situation plays in here?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, let me just take issue with something Hisham said. In part it is not so much about Israel and the matter of Israel and the Palestinians, but look at the American claim, if you will. We are going to go into this new campaign in Arab, this new campaign in the Gulf, and whatever happens in Iraq, one thing we know for sure, this campaign will give greater power in a post-war Iraq to the Kurds and the Shiites and the Arab world is not beloved of these groups. There is very little love for either the Kurds or the Shiites.

The Arab world is comfortable with the arrangement where a small minority of Sunni Arabs in the heart of the country dominates the political power in Iraq. I think this American campaign, when we say to them look, this is going to be about democracy in Iraq, it probably scares the regimes more than anything else we can say.

So these regimes are, I think, betwixt and between. They’re afraid of their publics, they are worried after all, maybe the Americans will come in and not prosecute the war to the finish. But as soon as we make the decision to go to war, this will be an American decision, a solitary American decision initially, but once we get into it, I grant you many, many powers in the world, the French, the Russians, the Germans and others will not want to see us in monopoly position, an American monopoly position of a postwar Iraq because this is not Afghanistan. It’s a rich country; it has the second largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia, and many, many people will join us once we make that decision.

And we have to assure everyone in the region that we’re not going to wound Saddam and leave him in place as we did a decade or so ago, that this time it’s a war to the finish and that we are committed to really sacking this regime and changing it and giving the Arabs a decent regime in Iraq, a decent example rather than the kind of nightmare the Iraqis have been subjected to for a very, very long time.

MARGARET WARNER: Hisham Melhem, others some in the Bush Administration, have said likewise that they think if they go ahead with this many of these Arab states, as Fouad Ajami just said, will in fact get on the bandwagon. Do you think that’s true?

HISHAM MELHEM: Some Arab states will go reluctantly and jump on the train because they see a huge freight train coming and when that train leaves the station, they will probably jump in because they had to. The Kuwaitis are probably in the position, the Bahrainys and the Qatari’s, maybe the — , and maybe even the Turks will join us because they realize they would have to be part of this inevitable attack on Iraq.

But even as Fouad is alleging or is saying, even empires cannot as solitary actors on the international scene and they need empires. The American record in the region is not very compelling; it’s not very attractive. The performance in Afghanistan is not very encouraging also.

Iraq is a messier place. People are asking serious questions in the region just as they’re asking serious questions here. What is the shape of the day after? Who is going to be in charge? How can we maintain the unity of the country? This is a country with no democratic traditions, we have a weak opposition. I agree that the Kurds were slaughtered by this brutal regime I agree the Shiites have suffered a lot but people are raising serious questions and the Americans are not helping the case when they say we’ll start with Iraq but they will teach the Iranians a lesson, and they will teach the Syrians a lesson. This is really not a smart way of looking for allies.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Fouad Ajami, do you think some of these states think they could be next essentially?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think that’s a very legitimate question, Margaret. There are many, several states that will wonder if we are talking about regime change in Iraq, we are also talking about the regime change in the Palestinian territories, because we are committed to removing Yasser Arafat. The Iranians may have thoughts are they next, the Syrians may have thoughts, are they next?

But I think pretty much the Bush Administration has done a lot of spade work diplomatically and the message is out to all the regimes even in a difficult region such as the Middle East, Saddam stands alone and his violations of international norms and his challenge to world morality and to the stability of the region are of an order apart, so I think what we’re doing there is we are sending out the subtle message, don’t worry about it, it’s Saddam and Saddam alone. And as soon as these governments are persuaded of this, I think their behavior will change.

MARGARET WARNER: And you heard Hisham Melhem say much earlier in our discussion that the Bush Administration is warning that Saddam wants these weapons essentially to intimidate his neighbors as well as the United States; that these countries don’t feel threatened by him?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, that’s the dilemma of the American position. That’s our difficulty as a distant power, as a power far removed coming in and warning them about a character they’ve grown used to, about a man they are actually saying this man is a bandit but we’re familiar with him. He is only a jackal, if you will, in this neighborhood, no more.

And the difficulty of a great power coming from very far away and warning them about this man’s acquisitions of weapons of mass destruction, it makes our work difficult, but we should not… we should not be discouraged because it is really our judgment.

We are going to prosecute this war with the Brits by our side, with the Turks joining us and with some of the other powers in the region that Hisham has already alluded to, and I think everybody will there have to choose, do they value their Pax Americana connection or the relation to Saddam Hussein.

And what they will do is they will have rhetorical anti-Americanism in the public square and they will associate themselves with us in the shadows and behind closed doors and we can live with this.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Fouad Ajami, Hisham Melhem thank you both.